Drug epidemic grips India's Punjab state

 

MAQBOOLPURA, India

A boy just 12 years old was offering opium and hashish on a scrubby patch of land outside this village on a recent day.

His cellphone rang incessantly as he proudly related that he earned hundreds of dollars a month dealing drugs and playing cards.

Soon, a young man who called himself Sonny approached, hood pulled down over his head. He, too, was dealing in broad daylight to finance his heroin habit, and he had a special offer: good quality heroin for $45 a gram.

It does not take long to be offered drugs in Maqboolpura, a village outside the northern Indian city of Amritsar, not far from the Pakistani border. So many men here have died from drug use that this village is nicknamed "the place of widows."

The village offers a window into a drug epidemic that United Nations and government officials say is gripping young men in the state of Punjab. The trend, they say, is driven by unemployment and frustrated economic expectations, as well as the ready availability of smuggled Afghan heroin and other pain-relieving drugs known as opioids that are manufactured in India and often sold openly in pharmacies.

India's only Sikh-majority state, Punjab prospered from the Green Revolution and the introduction of high-yield crops in the 1970s. But it failed to build on that boom to attract industrial investment. In the past two decades, population growth has caused landholdings to shrink and economic growth has stagnated.

"It's a very big problem, and our youth is being engulfed in it," said Ranvinder Singh Sandhu, a sociologist who has published research on the epidemic of drug use but said his findings have been ignored by authorities. "Punjabis are very aspirational people, and when their aspirations are not fulfilled, then they are depressed."

Drug use has long been a problem in India's remote, insurgency-plagued northeast, as well as in cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. But the spread of drugs in Punjab, whose economy is the ninth-largest of India's 28 states, is a recent development that does not bode well for the nation as a whole, especially if the sharp economic slowdown of the past two years continues and youth unemployment rises.

Punjab has a reputation for partying and heavy drinking. It also has a history of drug use. For years, landowners gave raw opium to migrant farm laborers to encourage them to work harder.

But it was the rise over the past two decades of the Golden Crescent on India's western border — which became the world's main poppy-growing and heroin-producing region — that turned Punjab into a major transit route for the drug. Afghan heroin was smuggled into Pakistan, transported to the port in Mumbai and shipped to the West. But some of the heroin was cut to a lower quality and sold here cheaply.

Attempts in the past decade to tighten the Pakistani border for security reasons drove up the price of heroin and pushed people toward over-the-counter pharmaceuticals that produce a similar euphoric high, experts say.

What little data exist suggest that pharmaceutical drugs — opioid painkillers and sedatives — are commonly used here.

But physicians at drug rehabilitation centers said a recent rise in cross-border smuggling is causing a surge in the use of Afghan heroin. Increasingly, they said, drugs are being injected rather than ingested or smoked, leading to a surge in HIV/AIDS infections.

In the late 1980s, India began erecting a fence along its border with Pakistan that is now so brightly lit that it is clearly visible from space. But smugglers slip across where the fence is weak or interrupted by rivers, said H.S. Dhillon, director of intelligence for the Punjab police.

Often, packets of heroin are simply hurled across the fence, Dhillon said. In October, more than 240 pounds of heroin was found packed in cement bags on a train arriving from Pakistan. Drug seizures have risen three-fold in Punjab in the past two years, and the state accounts for more than half the heroin seized in India, officials said.

India's home minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, told Parliament last month that he had complained to his visiting Pakistani counterpart about a "disturbing increase in attempts to push drugs across the Punjab border" and expressed concern that the trade in fake currency may have the patronage of what he called "influential elements/groups in Pakistan," an oblique reference to the various Pakistani militant organizations.

But there is little attempt to control India's production of pharmaceutical drugs or regulate their distribution without prescriptions, experts say.

The deputy chief minister of Punjab, Sukhbir Singh Badal, said his government had set up a full-fledged anti-drug force and several rehabilitation centers. But researchers say there is little coordination or consensus on how to tackle the problem. Blaming Pakistan does not help, said Kunal Kishore of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

"The bulk of the injectable pharmaceuticals are being produced illicitly in India," he said, "so it is much more complex than finger-pointing."

There is also widespread agreement that local politicians and police are taking a cut of the profits. Election officials seized more than 100 pounds of heroin that they said party workers intended to distribute to voters before January's state elections. Giving out alcohol to bribe potential constituents is relatively common in India, but the plan to distribute heroin was unique to Punjab, officials said.

In 2009, a former police narcotics chief from the state capital, Chandigarh, was arrested in Mumbai and charged with selling drugs.

At one rehabilitation center in Punjab, a former drug dealer said he had regularly paid police thousands of dollars to be allowed to operate freely. Another said heroin use was so open in prison that he had started his habit there.

"It's basically the police who are smuggling half the drugs in the state," said one man, who would not give his name to avoid social stigma and trouble with the police. "If they confiscate 100 packets, police show 50 to the press and let the other 50 back into the market."

The human cost was all too evident in Maqboolpura, where 23-year-old Deepak Kaur sat with her three young children in their small brick house.

Her husband, a farm laborer, died of a heart attack in 2010 after ingesting painkillers and alcohol. Her brother-in-law died of an overdose, leaving two children. A father-in-law who is over 70 is the family's main breadwinner.

"I have no plans for life after my father-in-law is dead," Kaur said. "Only God knows how we are going to live."

- - -

Washington Post special correspondent Suhasini Raj contributed to this report.

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